Composer provides back story for 'Air,' 'Goats'

Rolfe Kent’s jazzy score for “Sideways” provided the perfect accompaniment to a story about two guys on a semi-improvisational trip. His motif for George Clooney’s corporate hatchet-man in “Up in the Air” is a drum rhythm with a soft-shoe bass tread, describing a man whose life has pace but no melody, a life that doesn’t harmonize much with anyone else’s.

Film music is the “meanwhile” and “suddenly” of narrative; it steps in for the back story, all while remaining discreet. In fact, Kent says, “When I’m spotting a film with a director, looking for places where the music goes, I’ll often ask, ‘What would be missing if we didn’t put anything there?’ Music should do something. We’ve developed this videogame mentality that says there should be a constant sound under the action. But you shouldn’t be afraid of silence. There’s a lot that can go on in empty space.”

Kent studied theology at the U. of Leeds but graduated as a psychology major — both, as it turns out, useful studies for the broader understanding of human experience that lends itself to lyric moments.

“My formal studies in music theory ended when I was 13 and got a C grade,” he says. “But at 12 I’d identified film composing as the way to go. “

Kent developed his craft on a number of undergraduate documentaries. His big break came from working with director Alexander Payne, who unnerved him one day in a scoring session of “Citizen Ruth” by saying “I want to know what you sound like.”

“I didn’t know, ” Kent says. “I’d been used to specifics. I’d never been put to the test like that. I can’t write purposeless music.”

Partly for that reason, and to keep up with cultural changes, Kent is constantly seeking to expand his musical vocabulary.

“I look for the opportunity to work on things that make my hair stand up on end, and write music that’s honest, true and deep.”

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